Is it poor form to be sad that Advent is drawing to a close? Somehow the more maudlin honesty about longing, with the cooler air (though Atlanta has been uncharacteristically warm this December) and the bare trees invites me to a place of peace and deep beauty more than any other of the year. Not to be confused with the 25 day calendar countdown complete with daily chocolates, the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmastide originates in the Hebrew lament and apocalyptic traditions. The prophets and prophetesses of the Jewish people anticipated a day when their suffering would be reversed and when God would usher in an age of freedom, Sabbath, and reconciliation (check out Isaiah 27.6-28.13, or Handle's Messiah). Walter Brueggemann writes, "It is for good reason that prophetic imaging is characteristically done in daring metaphor, surprising rhetoric, and scandalous utterance, for to do less is to fall back into conventional distortions of reality." (Brueggemann, NYAPC, August 2006) Music has been a vehicle for that metaphor for centuries and folks like Bob Dylan and Curtis Mayfield brought it into the fore of pop music. Christmas season in the west is filled with the kind of longing aesthetic, just check out the #sadchristmas hashtag.
In years past songs like Tom Wait's Jesus Gonna Be Here, Joni Mitchell's River, or U2's Wake Up Dead Man have been strong Advent soundtracks, but the two songs this year that particularly captured this feeling for me were Rory Cooney's Canticle of the Turning, and Paul Simmon's Getting Ready For Christmas Day .
My main-liner colleagues love the Canticle of the Turning written by Rory Cooney in 1990 (a GIA Pub). Cooney ties a Celtic vibe with the song of liberation starting from Mary's Magnificat to Hannah's prayer in the temple, and Miriam's dance after the escape through the parted Red Sea (here's his version). Usually these women's words are absorbed in the story but Cooney helps bring this theme of God's messianic shift to the fore. One verse goes:
From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev'ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn;
In the last verse he roots the fulfilling Messianic work of Christmas in a creation theology:
This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound, 'Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.
I have to admit, I was sorta hard on this song in seminary because it was always rendered with the aesthetic of a PBS special of The River Dance when sung to organ in straight 4/4. And it was a token song for youth-pastors-turned-MDiv students with djembes wearing indigenous shirts from past mission trips. But last year I heard Emmaus Way do it and then this year I was able to arrange it with the band at City Church Eastside and we landed in a more Joplin/Zepplin feel (or Blitzen Trapper for folks following current indie music) which is admittedly my own subcultural equivalent of indigenous shirts from mission trips. Anyways, the song's revolutionary tone and poetry came to life for me in this new setting. We began to joke that is was a song for 99%, but its probably more a song for the 2/3rds world (who's indigenous shirts are worn by ex-youth pastors).
This is all to say that songs, when deconstructed and rewritten by folks in your congregation can capture the imaginations of your community in ways that songs that with a educated "global" feel may actually keep at arms lengths. But I'll confess its hard to seperate my own subjective aesthetic from my argument, perhaps you'd have some better perspective to offer…
Someone who's appropriation of global and indegenous sounds has always felt more intergrative is Paul Simmon. A second song that has been working on me this Advent is from his most recent album, So Beautiful So What. The album deserves a post of its own because of his masterful poetry, clever delivery and outstanding folk/rock sensibility. But the first song on the album, Getting Ready for Christmas Day, is the one I'd love to share. The guitars are panned with a reverb going back and forth similar to T-Bone Burnet's production of the Krauss/Plant album, Raising Sand. Beneath the percussive guitars and drums you first single out the sounds of what could be party conversation but then you realize its a black church with the preacher and congregation in that unmistakable call and response. The cadence of his words are magical and makes me wonder if Simon wrote the song to fit with the sermon (but I'll bet the sermon was mixed to fit the song). The minister, Rev. J.M.Gates, was an Atlantan activist, Christian preacher, and gospel singer from the early 20th century and a pioneer of the new media of his time (its estimated that 25% of all sermons commercially released before '43 were his ). The sermon sampled in the song comes from shortly after the second world war. On Simon's web site he posts Gates' lyrics with his and it makes for a call and response of its own centered in the longing of Advent. Mike tweeted today that a conversation between a contemporary working class person hustling to live up to the acquisitive expectations of capitalism and an apocalyptic sermon about the brevity of life. Notice the interplay:
Paul Simon: From early in November to the last week of December I got money matters weighing me down Oh the music may be merry, but it's only temporary I know Santa Claus is coming to town In the days I work my day job, in the nights I work my night But it all comes down to working man's pay Getting ready, I'm getting ready, ready for Christmas Day
Reverend Gates : Getting ready for Christmas Day And let me tell you, namely, the undertaker, he's getting ready for your body Not only that, the jailer he's getting ready for you Christmas day. Hmm? And not only the jailer, but the lawyer, the police force Now getting ready for Christmas day, and I want you to bear it in mind
Paul Simon: I got a nephew in Iraq it's his third time back But it's ending up the way it began With the luck of a beginner he'll be eating turkey dinner On some mountain top in Pakistan Getting ready, oh we're getting ready For the power and the glory and the story of the Christmas day
Reverend Gates: Getting ready, for Christmas day. Done made it up in your mind that I'm going, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago. I'm going, on a trip, getting ready, for Christmas day. But when Christmas come, nobody knows where you'll be. You might ask me. I may be layin' in some lonesome grave, getting ready, for Christmas day
Paul Simon: Getting ready oh we're getting ready For the power and the glory and the story of the Christmas day Yes we're getting ready
Reverend Gates: Getting ready, ready for your prayers, "I'm going and see my relatives in a distant land."
Pail Simon: Getting ready, getting ready for Christmas day If I could tell my Mom and Dad that the things we never had Never mattered we were always okay Getting ready, oh ready for Christmas day Getting ready oh we're getting ready For the power and the glory and the story of the Christmas day
What songs bring Advent home for you? Will you miss this season as much as me?